Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary Blog

The DNA of Unity and Diversity in God’s Image

February 24, 2014

Credit: Nevit Dilmen. Wikimedia Commons

Credit: Nevit Dilmen. Wikimedia Commons

I’ve long said I wish as a church we could open our hands to receive the irreconcilable dilemma we’re faced with around sexual orientation, as a gift from God. Am I out of my mind to say this? Maybe. But I do not assert this glibly. As a 60 year old, I know the crucible events in my life—as wracked with pain as they are—drive me deeper into the love of God. Break my heart open. Make me more humble. And perhaps a tad wiser.

I believe enough in the good providence of God to ask—why has this conflict—a conflict that tears us down the middle in families, congregations, denominations, nations—why has this conflict shown up with such ferocity? What does God want us to learn as a people? What does God want to teach us? I am energized by the questions and therefore receive the monumental dilemma about how to be faithful Christ-followers with our sexuality as a gift. God is calling us to grow in faith and faithfulness.

How are we being asked to grow? To read our Bibles with new, intense questions. To do the messy, marvelous theological work that is required to understand what the unsettling Spirit is calling us toward in this day. To fulfill the law to love God above all and our neighbor as ourselves.

As the church is wracked with painful conflict (and yes, it is horrible what we’re doing to each other in social media), the educator part of me thinks of this as a developmental stage. Groups have stages, as do individuals. Any one of us who has been a teenager or parent stumbling around to negotiate differences, knows about the difficult work of differentiation. It seems our default setting as Mennonites is to cut off relationships and withdraw into a “pure” enclave of the like minded, heaping vitriol on the other side. This is classic sectarian immaturity. Experience has shown that the differences follow us into the enclaves and only fragment us further.

When received as a gift, as an essential part of healthy development, the wrestling eventuates in an amazing kind of growing up together—where parents and teenagers grow wiser and more able to embrace varying degrees of difference within the family.

The theologian part of me asks again—how might we open our hands and hearts at this moment to discover the gifts of God’s grace within our irreconcilable differences? Rather than threatening, accusing, and demeaning each other—how might we receive this conflict as God’s invitation to meet at the foot of the cross?

AMBS New Testament professor Mary Schertz writes that taking the cross of Jesus seriously means that suffering love is to be played out in the arena of discernment around difficult issues, as in all other areas of our common life. There can be no holier, compassionate work than to engage in the difficult conversations we currently find ourselves within.

Being honestly transparent with each other is humbling, hard work and yet that is when we come to know how gracious is the love of Christ “who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross.” Our hearts will be tugged (painfully) wider and wider open as we hold together what seems irreconcilable. Isn’t this after all what is so astonishing, that we serve a Lord in whom “all things hold together” and through whom “God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things”?

Jesus taught us that the fulfillment of the law is all about loving God with heart, soul, mind and strength, and our neighbors as ourselves. The fulfillment of the law is all about the integrity of life—where internal affections and external actions harmonize. The fulfillment of the law is about putting our desire for God above all other desires and judging all human desire in light of our desire for God.

So yes, we can open our hands and receive the irreconcilable dilemma we’re faced with around sexual orientation as a gift from God. Why? Because we are made in the image of God. Every one of us. The image of God is our most fundamental DNA.

As persons who bear God’s indelible, grace-filled imprint, we can learn to discern together—even grow in wisdom and maturity together. With the illuminating Spirit as guide, we can teach each other about the diverse ways we fulfill the law by putting our desire for God above all other desires; our love for God above all loves.

“God so loved the world ….” Clearly God has hope in humankind and in the church. God hasn’t given up on us. And so, we live in hope.

_ _ _ _ _

Comments that contribute to the focus of this post are welcome. Comments that in our view demean or disrespect persons will not be posted.

Tags: pastors , sexuality

Add comment


Jim, I would encourage you to consider different viewpoints when you speak of documents, policies, and trust being "blown off" because of selfish agendas. Just because people in a different church or conference come to a different conclusion after prayerful research, deliberation and study than you or the status quo does not mean they have "blown off" anything, or been more selfish or agenda driven than you or others made comfotable by the status quo. It feels like you are diminishing the faithful work that others have done and breaking the trust we should be able to have with each other in the church that we will act thoughtfully and faithfully even if we come to different conclusions. As part of the queer community, I sometimes feel like there are those in the church who have "blown off" my experience and faithful work and that of my friends and family as if we are the only ones with an agenda and the only ones who can sometimes be selfish. The status quo is not morally neutral. Sometimes it feels like policies and documents have come from agreements built on the backs of those who weren't taken into account. When it's your back, it certainly feels more like that. Maybe that makes my agenda selfish.
Katie Hochstedler 5:08PM 04/02/14
Asia, from what I've observed there are multiple communities, congregations and conferences that are using the best conflict management resources available to engage constructively in difficult conversations. Jim, you raise important questions which many of us are pondering. How do we keep covenant with each other through shared agreements that build trust and assure transparent accountability? And how do we listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches--calling us as Jesus often did--with prophetic imagination to reconsider: "You have heard it said, but I say to you...." Managing continuity and change is an immensely challenging thing to do in each new generation; preserving what is essential to faith and discerning what new thing God's Spirit is prompting us to consider. I pray that we find a way to live in covenant with each other and the best of our faith tradition even as we courageously follow God's restless, reconciling Spirit.
Sara 5:45PM 03/05/14
For me this issue is more that of a broken trust; that documents and policies of the church which were prayerfully researched, deliberated and studied out, were "blown off" in order to push an agenda. Are conferences autonomous? Is there any care or concern for the greater church organization or is it mostly selfish?
Jim Ziegler 9:44AM 03/01/14
I feel like for a denomination rooted in the hope of reconciliation and non-violent resolution that I have heard too little about these in the "discussion." I've only got a smidge of KIPCOR training, but enough to know that there are methods and teachings for group reconciliation. Does any one know if we are using these tools that we have? I'd love for somebody who knows a lot more than me to eloquently explore that.
Asia Frye 8:32PM 02/28/14
Lowell, I agree that the way I phrased my observation about "pure" enclaves and sectarian immaturity sounds demeaning. Thank you for pointing this out. My hope is to invite reflection on what appear to me to be patterns of behavior. What can we learn from them? How might we imagine another way rather than unreflectively replaying old scripts? Under the mercy. Sara
Sara 12:25PM 02/26/14
Nathan, I'd be curious what you mean-by conciliation, and in terms of systems power analysis.
Samuel VS 11:29PM 02/25/14
Sarah suggests we not "threaten, accuse, and demean each other" yet she says our "default setting as Mennonites is to cut off relationships and withdraw into a “pure” enclave of the like minded, heaping vitriol on the other side. This is classic sectarian immaturity." I find it demeaning that anyone who chooses to look for unity in common core beliefs rather than diversity is labeled as sectarian and immature. If we truly believed the highest good is unity at any price, we would all still be Catholic.
Lowell Delp 11:17PM 02/25/14
I'm inclined to reject the premise that conciliation is not possible. It might be helpful to explore some systems power analysis--a bit more attention to the powers and principalities at play here.
Nathan Horst 4:14PM 02/25/14

This blog is hosted by Sara Wenger Shenk. While Sara is president of Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary, she writes as a practical theologian trying to make sense of everyday life—in light of God's reconciling mission in the world.

The views Sara shares here are not the voice of AMBS. As a woman, mother, author, educator, lover of God, Sara is a restless scout—searching out ways that lead toward God’s shalom. She doesn’t assert answers so much as pose questions, test assumptions, resist labels, play with possibilities, experiment with integration, practice wholeness. She hopes this blog will provide a spacious forum for thoughtful discernment around sometimes contentious issues.